Monitoring aviators and aircrew in the machine is the focus of a DOD innovation project, industry representatives learned Sept. 20.
Military aircrew serve in physically demanding environments at or near the physiological limitations of the human body, which exposes them to the risk of degraded performance. Called physiological episodes (PEs), when these events occur aircrews experience unanticipated, unexplained and at times incapacitating symptoms during or after flight that impair physiological functions.
“Because physiological episodes happen to humans, not aircraft, our primary concern is the safety and well-being of our aviators and aircrew. If we can understand the environment they are operating in and then influence that environment to give them more margin, we’ll be in a much better place,” said Rear Adm. Fredrick Luchtman, Physiological Episodes Action Team (PEAT) lead for the Navy.
Luchtman, along with Naval Aviation and Air Force subject matter experts, briefed about 40 industry representatives during a Physiological Monitoring industry Day in California, Maryland. Government representatives challenged industry to provide ideas on developing and fielding a physiological monitoring and alerting system that can predict when a PE is happening or about to happen.
“What we don’t currently have is anything that monitors the physiological parameters of the human in real-time during flight,” said Joel Wathen, physiological monitoring integrated product team (IPT) lead for the Aircrew Systems Program Office, which is leading this effort.
To expedite the process, the program office is working with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which was chartered to accelerate commercial innovation for DOD, explained Capt. David Padula, Aircrew Systems Program Office program manager.
DIU has a business model to fund non-traditional and traditional defense contractors to carry out prototype projects that are directly relevant to enhancing mission effectiveness.
“We’re casting a wider net to discover increased solution sets,” Padula said. “Working with DIU provides an opportunity for us to produce prototypes and deliver capability much quicker than traditional acquisition processes.”
The idea is that commercial, non-traditional defense companies may have existing, new or emerging technologies available that could be used to find a solution quicker, Wathen said.
Another perspective is to consider aviators as high-performance athletes, explained Jennifer Farrell, chief engineer for the Air Force’s Human Systems Program Office.
“We need to look at the pilots as if they were elite athletes. How do we monitor them and then make their performance better? How do we make sure that they can, while they’re in this demanding environment, respond appropriately,” Farrell said.
The DIU area of interest solicitation is open until Oct. 10 for industry ideas to be submitted at https://www.diux.mil/work-with-us/companies/cso-solution-brief.
Andrea Watters is editor of Naval Aviation News.
NAS Jacksonville Receives New Hypoxia Trainer
By Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Gobrecht
In July, the Aviation Survival Training Center (ASTC) at Naval Air Station (NAS) Jacksonville received the first of eight of the Navy’s newest hypoxia training devices, designed to train aviators on aircraft emergency procedures during loss of cabin pressure.
Hypoxia occurs when there is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching body tissue.
The Normobaric Hypoxia Trainer (NHT) replaces the Low Pressure Chamber (LPC) training device, which was removed in December 2017. The nearly 80,000-pound LPC device, essentially a large vacuum vessel, was capable of simulating rapid decompression and provided familiarization training on the use of oxygen-related Aviation Life Support Systems.
In 2016, the Chief of Naval Operations ordered the decommissioning of LPC devices during the fielding of the NHT, and the LPC in Jacksonville was the first to be decommissioned.
The two-day effort was coordinated by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) and required two cranes to lift the 56,000-pound LPC device onto a truck. A second truck transported remaining pieces and ancillary equipment to the final disposition site in Odenville, Alabama.
After restoring the training room, personnel from the Rapid Design, Development and Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) at NAWCTSD built and tested the NHT prototype. Unlike the LPC, the NHT induces hypoxia using a nitrogen-generation system and mixed gases as opposed to reduced pressure.
The first aviators used the trainer during a test event July 25, and the device successfully produced an environment equivalent altitude to 25,000 feet, providing the conditions necessary to get all 10 students onboard hypoxic. The students executed the same emergency procedures as they would in an aircraft and donned emergency breathing equipment. All 10 students fully recovered on the device’s rescue air system, and the test event was deemed a success.
The FabLab will finalize the trainer’s design, and over the next year, NAWCTSD will deliver the trainers to the ASTCs, with the final device being installed and ready for training no later than February 2020.
Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Gobrecht is the Safety & Survivability Integrated Product Team lead at Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.
Navy’s Medical Research Labs Expand PE Facilities, Studies
By Dr. Richard D. Arnold
The Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory (NAMRL) has expanded its research portfolio of physiological episode-related studies from about five per year prior to fiscal 2017 to 25 unique PE research protocols in fiscal 2018.
With a number of unexplained PEs being reported across Navy and Air Force aircraft platforms, Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton (NAMRU-Dayton) is responding to the challenge by rapidly expanding its environmental physiology research capacity by adding experienced altitude effects researchers and developing new laboratory facilities.
Research topics include the effects of barometric pressure changes, the effects of variable breathing gas mixtures, and the effects of breathing resistance on aircrew physiology and performance. The lab is developing and testing a range of physiologic, gas and chemical sensors for use as in-flight PE detection and mitigation tools.
NAMRL is not alone in the fight to understand and mitigate PEs.
For example, the Environmental Health Effects Laboratory (EHEL) is collaborating with NAMRL to conduct more extreme environmental exposure protocols than NAMRL can accomplish through its human-use research program.
In addition, NAMRU-Dayton is strengthening its collaboration with other DOD laboratories including the Naval Medical Research Center, Naval Health Research Center, Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory, NAMRU-San Antonio, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and Training Systems Division, Navy Experimental Diving Unit, Air Force 711th Human Performance Wing and Army Aeromedical Laboratory.
The Dayton unit is also working with academia and industry partners including Case Western Reserve University, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and KBRwyle to conduct research and development (R&D) in response to the rise of in-flight physiologic episodes.
The command continues to receive R&D support from long-term stakeholders such as the Naval Air Systems Command. More recently, non-traditional sponsors of aeromedical research such as Defense Health Agency and Bureau of Medicine and Surgery have enabled the lab to mount a substantial response to the threat of PEs to DOD aircrew.
In support of the lab’s planned research, NAMRL is constructing a new respiratory physiology laboratory that will aid studies on the effects of four factors:
- variable breathing gas mixtures
- in-line breathing resistance
- breathing gas pressure and flow disruptions
- flight equipment fit on aircrew physiology and cognitive function
NAMRL is building several aircraft-specific life support system (LSS) simulators to reproduce the breathing environments of the T-45 and F/A-18 aircraft.
Due to this surge in PE-related research NAMRL has added a number of senior scientific staff with experience in respiratory physiology research.
For more information, visit www.med.navy.mil/sites/nmrc/Dayton. You can also follow the command on Twitter @NAMRUDayton and Facebook @NavalMedicalResearchUnitDayton.
Dr. Richard D. Arnold is the director of the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory, Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton.